Look around, and it’s not hard to believe that we are in the midst of an ebook revolution. A year ago, Amazon trumpeted that it was selling more ebooks than print books in the United States; the same claim was made for the UK earlier this month. The ebook format was the dominant format for adult fiction in 2011, said a recent New York Times report, and even the reclusive and resistant Thomas Pynchon is embracing the format. Ebooks are the new face of publishing, which will never be the same, right?
So I’ve been thinking, but then I read “Why Social Media isn’t the Magic Bullet for Self-epublished Authors,” an intriguing and sober-minded story in the Guardian by British author Ewan Morrison you owe yourself to peruse. Morrison argues that epublishing is “just another tech bubble” that will burst in the next 18 months, reasoning that epublishing is embedded in and thus ultimately dependent on social media structures that are proving to be ineffective sales tools. (A recent study he cites shows that four out of five Facebook users have never bought a product or service advertised on its site.)
Morrison also cites statistics showing that ebook publishing—and particularly, self-ebook publishing, the cutting edge here—is a bust for most folks. Ten percent of self-ebook publishers make 75 percent of the money, with only a small number of authors coming out ahead (as in standard publishing).
Furthermore, promoting one’s book by building an ebook platform, which he did experimentally, is an exhausting project with diminishing returns, and authors often resort to sketchy measures. You can hire a company to generate tweets for you or write a five-star Amazon review, he explained, or ask family or friends to write the reviews. Authors even brag about creating sock-puppet accounts to promote their own books. That kind of behavior undermines the credibility on which social media are built.
Meanwhile, a few authors are giving up on self-epublishing and migrating to standard publishing. Morrison quotes YA paranormal author Amanda Hocking as saying that she was sick of spending more time dealing with emails and finding editors than writing, and Colleen Hoover, a Smashwords author who has been reigning on the New York Times ebook and combined print and ebook best sellers list, has just signed with Atria.
Obviously, not all epublishing is self-epublishing, and Hocking’s and Hoover’s future titles will still appear in eformat. Just as obviously, what author, even the most trail-blazing self-starter in the e-realm, wouldn’t want the advances, marketing budgets, and distribution clout offered by an established publisher.
In the end, who will lead? How much can publishers learn from the entire epublishing enterprise? Will self-epublishing reshape the industry? Or will it end up acting more like a feeder team for the biggies, as small presses have always done? Would we be content with that? Is the ebook market heading for a housing-type crash, as Morrison predicts? Do we stop trusting social media? Can we make it more accountable? And how much are authors learning from all this activity? At a recent lunch, a publishing colleague and I mused that, rather surprisingly, all things e haven’t much changed writing itself in form or content—the one issue we find really interesting.
No, self-ebook publishing won’t implode—it’s an exciting venue, rife with possibility. And, yes, standard publishers, including the Big Six, are making ebooks a profitable part of their business—as another, eye-popping format for great (or sometimes not so great) content. But I would like to venture that it’s an evolution, not a revolution, which is probably better. Revolutions are bloody and often fruitless and typically revolve back to where the revolutionaries started; evolution means getting ahead.